The Advent season isn’t Christmas, however much we forget that. Christmas causes us to look back in awe and wonder at the greatness of our Lord, who made himself nothing. But the Advent season looks ahead to the fact that the manger baby is coming back—this time as a mighty warrior king. And that leads to one important question… “Are you ready?” It is a question we each need to ask ourselves and a question that is not new.
The question of readiness runs through the whole Bible, from the people living before the Flood to the nation of Israel in Egypt. Unfortunately, the people of Noah’s day weren’t ready for the coming of God’s judgment. But the people of Israel, who lived under Pharaoh’s thumb, were able to make themselves ready in the face of God’s judgment by trusting in God’s provision of a Passover lamb.
But perhaps the most obvious place that we find this readiness question is from the mouth of John the Baptist. Two thousand years ago, before the lame walked or the blind received their sight, before Jesus raised the dead or preached to thousands, there was a man named John who lived in the desert, told people that the time was coming, and asked that same question… “Are you ready?”
We are asked that question plenty of times in our lives: “Are you ready to leave for school? Are you ready to eat? Are you ready to present your proposal?” And there are times when the answer is “yes” and times when the answer is “no.” There are also times when we have taken good advantage of the allotted time to be prepared and times when we have procrastinated far too long. Sometimes the failure to be ready does not come with particularly grave consequences, allowing us to be a little sloppy in using our time. But when this readiness question is asked during Advent, we should not overlook it or take it lightly.
People in John’s day knew that the Messiah was coming. So when John came on the scene asking if people were ready, they came flooding out to the desert to hear him preach and to be baptized. They felt unready and they desperately wanted to be ready. That wasn’t true for everyone, of course. Some thought that John was a quack, or a menace. But many were cut to the heart and they wanted to make sure that when the King of kings came, they were indeed ready.
That sense of urgency John’s listeners felt is all too often missing today. Maybe it’s the length of time that has passed since Jesus promised his return, or perhaps we have just gotten too comfortable. Whatever the case, in our day Christmas has swallowed up Advent, and we need to again hear John say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” In fact, the concepts of readiness and repentance are at the core of the Advent season, and they are an imperative of the Christian life. Yes, we all have a whole host of things we need to do to prepare for Christmas parties and Christmas services, but none of those hold a candle to the need for us to be ready for the return of Christ.
Now, to the Christians reading this article, you would be right to be thinking that you have been forgiven of your sin. You have been redeemed by that baby in the manger, who years later suffered and died on the cross for your sin. And you would also be right to claim that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). These are the true and perfect promises for all who believe. But that does not do away with the call of repentance in our lives. We don’t live in despair or in doubt of God’s ability or desire to forgive us. But we are still called to honestly and humbly approach our holy God to confess and repent of our sin and the sin of our people.
You see, repentance doesn’t just have a “me, myself and I” focus. It also has a “we and us” focus. We see this modeled for us in Daniel chapter 9, where we find Daniel on his knees confessing not only his own sins but also the sins of his people Israel.
In the US, we have just gone through an election season where people were all too willing to point out sin and also point out those who are to blame for it. But did we see people stand up (or kneel down) to confess that sin as their own before the holy God and to ask for his forgiveness?
Let this Advent season stand apart from Christmas this year, as it always should, as a time for the people of God to repent, and to do so both individually and corporately:
- To repent of our inherited sin and our actual sin
- To repent of our sinful thoughts as well as our immoral acts
- To repent of our hard-heartedness and our lack of faith
- To repent of the things that we have done that we shouldn’t have
- To repent of the things that we have not done that we should have.
But let us also repent of the injustice in our nation and of our shared wickedness:
- To repent for how life over and over again has been devalued in all sorts of ways
- To repent of the walls of division that we have built up
- To repent of how we have individually and collectively fallen short of the glory of God and have grieved the heart of God.
In the Christmas season, we celebrate how God put on flesh to come to be our prophet, priest, and king. And that is absolutely a reason to celebrate. But let us not rush so fast to get there that we miss the season of Advent. Looking forward to his coming again, let us take up the mantle of the priests that Jesus has made his Church to be, that we may stand in the gap and talk to God about our sin and the sin of our people.
This year, let us not rush to Christmas and forget what Advent is all about. But also, let us joyfully remember that Christmas does come after Advent. The message of John and the message of Jesus (and subsequently, the message that the Church should continue to proclaim as well) is “repent and believe the good news.” There is good news for those who repent. There is absolutely forgiveness of sins for all who confess and believe, for all who repent of their sin and trust in the Lord.
Rev. Roger Viksnes is Pastor at Bethany Lutheran Brethren Church in East Hartland, Connecticut.